How staffing shortages grounded thousands of flights over the holidays

Travelers pass through airport security
Clear panels to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus keep travelers separated as they make their way through the line to clear security at Love Field in Dallas on Dec. 31, 2021.
LM Otero | AP Photo file

It looks like air travel is starting to return to a manageable place after a chaotic holiday season. Tuesday morning at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, 30 flights had been canceled and 40 had been delayed. But over the holidays, thousands of flights were canceled or delayed at airports across the U.S.

Bad weather doesn’t help, but the key issue is staffing, as COVID-19 infections race through flight crews. Host Cathy Wurzer took a closer look at the state of the travel industry with Kyle Potter, executive editor of Thrifty Traveler.

Just how bad did it get for the travel industry over the holiday season? “It doesn’t get much worse than this,” Potter said.

According to a Delta staff memo obtained by Thrifty Traveler, the airline saw more than twice as many unplanned crew absences over the most recent holiday season than it did over Thanksgiving 2021.

But Potter said no airline is safe: From the end of December into the start of January, every major airline has canceled hundreds of flights every day.

Before the rise of the omicron variant, airline staffing was already low. Now, airlines are stretching themselves thin to meet demand without giving themselves wiggle room to cope with a storm or some other setback, Potter said.

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According to Potter, it’s irresponsible for airlines to continue to sell a full schedule of tickets in light of the staffing shortage. Travelers who have experienced delays don’t have much recourse.

“You can ask nicely for some compensation,” Potter said, but that’s about it. “In the United States, travelers have precious few rights when it comes to these kinds of disruptions.”

Because every airline has been involved in the meltdown and travelers have short memories, Potter doesn’t anticipate long-term damage to the reputations of individual airlines, even though the disruptions have been massive.

Will conditions improve now the holidays are past? “I don’t see that this is going to change substantially anytime soon,” Potter said.

Potter encouraged those planning travel in the near future to maintain as much flexibility as possible. That means buying main cabin seats — as they don’t have hefty change and cancellation fees — and watching your reservation for schedule changes.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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